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Healthier fats and oils in the spotlight

Food and beverage manufacturers are turning to clean label fats and oils to appeal to a growing base of health-conscious consumers.

The release of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) marked a key turning point for public opinion of the healthfulness of food by placing more emphasis on types of foods and eating patterns rather than actual dietary components deemed public health concerns by past guidelines. Key recommendations included reducing trans fats and limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of daily calories.

The guidelines noted: “Strong and consistent evidence shows that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats, is associated with reduced blood levels of total cholesterol and LDL [low-density lipoprotein]. Additionally, strong and consistent evidence shows that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats is associated with a reduced risk of CVD [cardiovascular disease] events (heart attacks) and CVD-related deaths.”

The DGAs suggest a healthy eating pattern should include consumption of plant-based oils such as from canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean and sunflower, as well as oils naturally present in nuts, seeds, seafood, olives and avocados.

Consumers are taking heed. According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2018 Food & Health Survey, more than half of U.S. consumers viewed saturated fats as unhealthy, while nearly 70 percent said they understood the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Futher, data from Packaged Facts’ 2017 “Food Formulation Trends: Oils and Fats” report found trans fats are avoided the most (35 percent) by consumers, followed by saturated fats (29 percent), partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) (24 percent), margarine (21 percent), and vegetable shortening (18 percent).

This heightened demand for healthier fats and oils is impacting all food and beverage categories, particularly indulgent goodies like cookies, cakes and confectionery that contain higher fat content. The good news is fat and oil technologies are keeping pace with the ever-dynamic needs and preferences of today’s marketplace, and brands are turning to ingredient suppliers for healthier options that don’t compromise taste or function.

Health and wellness driving market growth

According to the 2018 “Global Fats and Oils Market - Growth, Trends and Forecast” report from Research and Markets, the global fats and oils market is expected to reach US$270 billion by 2023, reflecting a 5.2 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2018 to 2023. Driving market growth is increased consumption of processed foods, confectionery and ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages as well as demand for polyunsaturated fats. The report also noted increased demand for olive oil, LDL-lowering and HDL-increasing oils and fats are causing a shift in the global oils and fats market.

“Health and wellness are becoming increasingly important to consumers in all of their food interactions, from the snack aisle in the grocery store to the corner booth of their favorite restaurant,” said Mark Stavro, senior director of marketing, Bunge North America. “Consumers are increasingly demanding ‘good’ fats, such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, and continue to look to olive and canola oil as well as avocados and nuts to provide these.”

To build awareness of its heart health benefits and to give food manufacturers the opportunity to market them, Bunge independently petitioned FDA to approve a qualified heart health claim for soybean oil. “Now, following the FDA’s approval of the claim, brands are better positioned to market heart health on their packaging,” Stavro said.

Today, “better-for-you” has moved beyond health claims to a broad category of general health and wellness with products made with ingredients that are clean label, organic, non-GMO (genetically modified organisms), sustainable, traceable and minimally processed.

Bunge offers a wide range of oil ingredients available in Non-GMO Project Verified, USDA Certified Organic and certified Transitional options. Its Whole Harvest line of expeller-pressed oils include Non-GMO Project Verified soy and canola oil and USDA certified organic soybean oil.

“The oils are expeller-pressed, which is a more sustainable approach to making oil versus conventional extraction methods,” Stavro explained. “The soybean oil is also sustainably refined, which better reduces waste compared to conventional refining techniques. The soy and canola oils are transparently sourced from farms across North America.”

Formulation considerations

Cost and functionality are critical areas brands must consider when making the switch to clean fats and oils. In some cases, removal of certain fats is straightforward and results in minimal extra cost; in other cases, fats can have a major functional role, and therefore must be replaced with other ingredient or processing solutions.

Consider trans fats, which have been linked to increased LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, and decreased HDL, or “good” cholesterol. In 2015, FDA stripped partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the main source of artificial trans fats, of their GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status and banned their use in most food products by June 18, 2018. The deadline was extended for certain foods to allow for products produced prior to the deadline to work their way through distribution channels.

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) also called for the elimination of trans fats from the global food supply by 2023, a move the agency said would reduce the number of CVD-related deaths associated with trans fat intake.

While PHOs are commonly used as a replacement for saturated fat, removing them presents formulation challenges because they contribute to flavor, texture, shelf life and consistency in many products including baked goods, snack foods, frozen desserts, coffee creamers, margarines, vegetable shortenings, microwave popcorn, refrigerated dough products and ready-to-use frostings.

Consider the bakery category. Bakery fats require an optimal level of plasticity for functionality and must be pliable with the correct degree of firmness. To ensure bakery success, a fat needs to be solid at room temperature to provide the right structure, creaming capabilities and mouthfeel. However, even solid fats are not entirely solid. They consist of two phases: a solid portion (solid fat) and a liquid portion (liquid or oil).

When choosing a fat, manufacturers must target a balance between the solid and liquid components. For example, too much solid content or too high a melting point, and the product will not have the proper melting characteristics yielding an undesirable mouthfeel. Consequently, too much liquid can make the product oil out or taste oily. In an icing, the product won’t aerate properly.

To address these issues, Cargill recently launched its PalmAgility™ shortening line that reduces brittleness across a wider temperature range, allowing customers to store it easily without sacrificing workability or texture.

“PalmAgility provides a smoother, creamier texture than standard palm oil shortenings, which aids in faster mixing time and better incorporation of all ingredients, both of which are easier on baking equipment,” said John Satumba, Ph.D., research and development director, global edible oils, North America, Cargill. “A faster crystallization rate also helps improve setting in glazes for donuts and fillings for sandwich cookies, for example.”

Ingredient selection is critical to success, and Satumba said brands should consider a variety of factors across the entire supply chain including ingredient origination, supply reliability, cost, functionality, ease-of-use and impact on a finished product’s quality and eating attributes.

Removing and replacing ingredients also carries additional costs, especially for clean label options.

“Changes in production processes and methods of incorporation to ensure even distribution into fats and oils are frequently required to preserve the integrity of the more sensitive natural ingredients,” said James Jones, Ph.D., vice president, customer innovation at AAK USA. He cautioned the cost per pound and dosage to achieve the desired effect with natural ingredients is generally higher and usually commands a premium price.

“Non-PHO functional replacements tend to be more susceptible to oxidation than their PHO counterparts. This makes getting away from the stronger, less-expensive synthetic antioxidants such as BHA, BHT and TBHQ—historically used for optimal antioxidant and free radical scavenging—an even bigger challenge,” he said. “This is where intimate knowledge of customer strategy, consumer trends [and ingredient] meet.”

For example, natural oil-soluble antioxidants such as green tea extract, rosemary extract, vitamin E and carotenoids such as beta-carotene and lycopene are beginning to replace the less label-friendly, chemical-sounding synthetics. “Citric acid, long known for its metal-chelating ability to reduce oxidation initiators as well as vitamin C as a water-soluble antioxidant in emulsions, also may play a role in helping the industry replace the more oxidatively stable PHOs with clean label solutions,” Jones said.

PHOs provide structure and tenderness in baked goods such as cakes and cookies and help slow staling and improve shelf life in products like breads and rolls. Fats and oils also provide tenderness, flavor, lubricity and structure to products, so depending on the role or roles they play, certain functionality traits may need to be replaced with other ingredients such as emulsifiers or hydrocolloids.

Sourcing matters to consumers

Brands also must consider consumers are making purchasing decisions based on the nutritional value of ingredients as well as how they are sourced. Consider palm oil, an ingredient both ubiquitous and misunderstood, which carries with it concerns over orangutan species endangerment, rapid deforestation, habitat loss and human rights abuses—mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, where 85 percent of the world’s palm oil is sourced.

Industry and consumer concern over these issues has more brands seeking palm oil solutions from ingredient suppliers committed to transparent, traceable and sustainable palm oil supply chain integrity backed by certifications from organizations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s (RSPO), Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oils (MSPO), Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and the Rainforest Alliance.

What’s next?

The future of better-for-you fats and oils in food production is bright, especially as clean label continues to take center stage. Consumers will continue to seek indulgent products such as baked goods, snacks, confectionery and dairy products where fats and oils help create a memorable tasting experience, but they also want to feel good about their choices. This opens the door for brand holders to not only clean up ingredient lists but also add functionality into finished products.

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